Interviewed by The Clare Champion March 30th 2010
In 1994, Paul Harrington and Paul McGettigan won the Eurovision Song Contest for Ireland with Rock and Roll Kids. But it was the seven-minute interval act Riverdance that stole the show for over 300 million European viewers.
With music and lyrics written by Bill Whelan, Riverdance mixed traditional and modern music, choral singing and Irish dancing and presented them in a new way. Out of the interval act came Riverdance The Show and in February 1995, the world premiere was held at the Point Theatre, Dublin.
Eileen Martin was agog with excitement before the curtain went up on the never-to-be-forgotten interval act. Having joined the production as a young student, she got a huge adrenaline rush dancing on the same stage as Jean Butler and Michael Flatley. Little did she realise that Riverdance would attract over 22 million spectators over the next 15 years or that she would take over from Jean Butler and become the principal female in January 1997, touring Australia and North America, including at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway.
Taking dancing lessons since the age of four, Eileen captured her first world title when she was just 12 and went on to win nine consecutive Leinster and All-Ireland titles, several Great Britain championships, All-England, and four world titles. The wheel has now come full circle for the Foxrock native and mother-of-three as she juggles her family commitments with training the female principal dancers before tours, having joined Riverdance as Irish dance director in 2004. She also aims to open her own dancing school.
Before the interval act, she had no idea the show would become such a sensational success story. However, after their debut performance, she knew the producers had hit on something special.
“The whole image of all the dancers doing the same thing at the same time to the same music made Riverdance different. It contemporised Irish music and animated for the show. The mixture of different types of music and dance was unique and had a global appeal.
“It was a dream come true for me being able to dance in venues throughout the world. The whole experience was infectious. It becomes your life and the tour was like a big family,” she said.
The weeks leading up to a show were gruelling. Practice started at 9am in the morning and often continued to 9pm, with just a few short breaks. All the dancers had to go over and over their steps and routine until it was perfect.
On occasions, Eileen was barely able to walk her muscles were so sore leaving the practice room.
The highlight of her career was the 18 months she spent on the Broadway tour where she took over the lead female role dancing with Pat Roddy and Anthony Sharkey.
“The Broadway tour was brilliant. The reaction from the audience was amazing and it gives you the energy to keep going night after night,” she recalled.
Having competed in All-Ireland and world championships at the West County Hotel in the early ’90s, she is very familiar with Ennis and is looking forward to performing in front of a local audience.